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Why The Music Industry Keeps Turning To REVERB For Its Eco Needs

Why The Music Industry Keeps Turning To REVERB For Its Eco Needs

In the early ’00s, Adam Gardner’s home and work lives didn’t align. “We would live an environmentally friendly lifestyle at home, and then he would go off on the tour bus powered by diesel, using Styrofoam and plastic utensils, and just feeling miserable about it all,” recounts the Guster frontman’s then-girlfriend, now-wife, Lauren Sullivan. “He realized other artists were feeling the same way.”

Gardner cared about sustainability. Many music business stakeholders that he met, in touring especially, didn’t. So he and Sullivan — a veteran of environmental organizations including Rainforest Action Network — set out to redefine how the industry approaches its footprint.

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In 2004, they co-founded REVERB (they’re now co-executive directors), partnering in short order with prominent eco-friendly acts like Dave Matthews Band and Jack Johnson. Twenty years on, its guiding mission remains: working with artists (its partners now include Billie Eilish, ODESZA and The 1975) and the music business to implement sustainable touring measures and to leverage the fan-artist relationship to increase engagement with environmental and social issues.

Inspired by Bonnie Raitt — “the godmother of all of it,” as Sullivan puts it, who launched her Green Highway initiative on her 2002 tour to promote alternative energy sources while greening her own touring — Sullivan reached out to the musician’s management to gauge how the model might be applied to other tours, and it offered mentorship and initial financial support. Gardner propositioned Barenaked Ladies to test the model; the band agreed, and REVERB debuted on the group’s 2004 co-headlining tour with Alanis Morissette.

REVERB spent its early years navigating a music business that was often ambivalent about environmental issues. But as the climate crisis worsened and stakeholders saw REVERB in action, its conversations about sustainability became easier and its actions more comprehensive. Where REVERB used to be “a thorn in the side” of promoters, venues and artist teams, Sullivan explains, “it has been a sea change, 2004 to today.”

A fan refilled at a water station.

The nonprofit’s work falls into two broad categories: improving a tour, venue or event’s sustainability and using concerts to connect with fans about important issues. While tour sustainability has improved since REVERB launched — thanks in part to the organization itself — the former remains central to its work because most music industry stakeholders still lack the expertise to conceive and carry out green initiatives. Lara Seaver, who as REVERB’s director of touring and projects implements its strategies, describes REVERB’s suite of tour greening measures as “a menu” that teams can choose from based on a tour’s established culture. There’s “low-hanging fruit,” like eliminating single-use plastic bottles backstage, and more involved actions, like collecting a touring party’s unused hotel toiletries (which hotels often discard because they’re not tamper-resistant) and donating them to local shelters.

“What REVERB does really well is they make it turnkey to implement everything,” says AG Artists COO/GM Jordan Wolosky, who has handled client Shawn Mendes’ REVERB work. “There’s so many different moving pieces, so when you have an organization that can help you tackle a few of those pieces from the start, it’s extremely helpful.”

There’s also “not a lot of weight or responsibility put on the artist unless they really want to dive in,” says Activist Artists Management partner and head of sustainability Kris “Red” Tanner, who oversees REVERB affiliations for clients like The Lumineers and Dead & Company. “They help execute and check everything. We as the artists can say, ‘We support this, we want it to happen,’ but funnel it through [REVERB] and make sure we’re actually living up to what we’re promising.”

Critically, REVERB’s programs are tailored. “I can’t imagine saying to an artist, ‘It’s cookie-cutter, and it’s our way or the highway,’ ” Sullivan says. Some artists want to go green but aren’t sure how; others have specific environment-related priorities (one year, Dave Matthews asked REVERB to dedicate its on-site messaging to protecting rhinos), while others still tap into the climate crisis’ intersectionality by asking REVERB to coordinate advocacy for social issues (like homelessness and addiction for The Lumineers and Indigenous land rights for boygenius).

“It’s a really great, low-impact way for us to allow the artists to make an impact without a lot of heavy lifting on their side,” Tanner says. “Just using their pulpit is a great way to help spread the word.”

REVERB researches and assembles local and national nonprofit partners, which are often numerous enough to create “action villages” at events for fans to interact with; for instance, during its 2023 tour, boygenius hosted 50 nonprofits. Since forming, REVERB has facilitated 7.7 million total fan actions, which range from voter registration to utilizing the #RockNRefill program, a decadelong partnership with Nalgene that rewards donors with collectible, tour-specific reusable water bottles — and offers all fans free, filtered refilling stations. “If you have 100 people on a tour, doing everything perfectly — you have the lightest footprint tour that ever was — and you compare that with the power of 20,000 fans at one show, it’s pretty clear where the most potential for impact is,” Seaver explains.

Adam Gardner, Jack Johnson and Lauren Sullivan in 2017.

Notably, since REVERB’s inception, sustainability has moved from afterthought to priority in the industry. “Folks are realizing if these sorts of impacts are considered from the very beginning, the efficiency of these solutions goes through the roof,” says Tanner Watt, a 12-year REVERB veteran who liaises with artists, nonprofits and brands as director of partnerships. “We can usually save time and money and also increase the potential positive outcome and positive impact of these programs when we’re involved in the entire conversation around a tour or event.”

These conversations extend to venues and promoters. Mike Luba, president of Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, began a partnership between the venue and REVERB in 2017. “We followed their blueprint,” he says, and the facility became climate-positive, meaning it offsets its carbon by more than it generates. “REVERB has changed the narrative, where people now go to concerts expecting that these things are in place,” Luba continues. Some artists do, too: Neil Young, who will play two dates at Forest Hills in May, isn’t an official REVERB partner, but he has a host of green requirements for any venue he plays. When booking his shows, “if we hadn’t already checked a whole bunch of boxes, it was a nonstarter,” Luba says.

Plenty of touring frontiers remain to be conquered. Last year, REVERB launched a major initiative, the Music Decarbonization Project, to eventually eliminate the carbon emissions created by the music industry, and Sullivan cites fan travel and inefficient tour routings as areas with room for improvement. But more broadly, REVERB has already accomplished some of the most challenging work.

“We’re continuing to show venues, promoters and other stakeholders that this is feasible — fans want it, artists clearly want it,” Sullivan says. “And if the will is there, it can happen.”

This story will appear in the March 30, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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